McNary forward Carson Long prepares to make a pass in traffic (KEIZERTIMES/Matt Rawlings).
“It certainly wasn’t pretty,” McNary boys’ basketball coach Ryan Kirch said about his team’s performance against South Salem, but the Celtics did enough to get the job done on the road.
Trailing by three midway through the third quarter, McNary finished the period on a 12-0 run and never looked back, defeating the Saxons 54-42 on Friday, Jan. 28.
Jando Gonzalez had a game-high 14 points, all of which came in the second half, for the Celtics and Gunner Smedema added 11 points in the win.
“Since league play has started and we’ve been at full strength, we have gotten better every single game. We have really guarded well over the last couple weeks,” Kirch said. “We had some struggles with handling pressure and making shots at times, but I’m proud of our guys. It was an ugly win. But a win is a win.”
Since the creation of the Mountain Valley Conference (MVC) in 2018, McNary is the only team to defeat South Salem multiple times in their home gym — the Celtics beat the second-ranked Saxons in 2019.
“They have been a rival for us the last few years, so coming out with a win was really important to us,” Gonzalez said.
“We made it our court tonight,” McNary forward Carson Long added.
McNary jumped out to an 8-2 advantage in the first quarter after Smedema and Tyler Copeland each scored a pair of hoops in the first three minutes. The Celtics went through a five-minute scoreless drought, allowing South Salem to go on a 9-0 run to gain the lead, but a key 3-pointer from Long helped the Celtics regain the momentum.
After getting a stop on the defensive end, Copeland found Long moving up the floor with an outlet pass with less than five seconds left in the quarter. Despite not being a perimeter player, Long gathered and shot the ball with confidence from the baseline, finding nothing but the bottom of the net when the buzzer sounded, tying the game at 11.
“It was a confidence booster, knowing that my teammates trusted me to take those shots,” Long said. “It brought our energy up.”
The other factor that allowed McNary to get out of their offensive funk was the play of Jabol Balos-Mesey off the bench.
Using his speed and athleticism, Balos-Mesey got to the rim on three consecutive possessions to score six straight points, allowing the Celtics to keep pace.
“He was a great spark tonight off the bench. He can go by people as good as anyone you’ll see. With our personnel, he’s able to do stuff that other guys can’t. In both halves, his impact changed the course of the game because it distorted their defense and changed how they guard. Those were big minutes he gave us tonight,” Kirch said.
A triple from Brody Roth put McNary on top late in the second quarter. The Saxons, however, concluded the period by scoring five straight points and took a 23-21 lead into the half.
Despite receiving multiple good looks, the Celtics were plagued by poor shooting to start the third quarter. But Evan Cornell finally got his team off the snide with a corner trey to cut the lead to one.
At the midway point of the third quarter, Gonzalez had missed all six of his shot attempts. But the junior point guard’s belief in himself never wavered, as he knocked down a deep, straightaway triple to put the Celtics on top 31-29.
Moments later, Gonzalez struck again from beyond the arc, forcing South Salem head coach Travis Brown to burn a timeout.
“My team just kept telling me to shoot the ball. I was finally glad I was able to knock a couple down,” Gonzalez said.
With less than 40 seconds remaining in the third quarter, and the Celtics holding for the final shot of the period, it was Long that stepped up for his team once again.
As the clock was winding down, Long corralled the kick-out pass from the paint and nailed a step-back trey at the buzzer, completing McNary’s 12-0 run, putting them up 38-29.
“We would like Carson to shoot more. I think sometimes he loses his confidence a little bit. I have told him at practice before that if he doesn’t shoot, I will take him out, so it was a bit ironic that he had some shots that he was forced to take at the horn,” Kirch said. “The guys were really excited for him, and certainly that one at the end of the third quarter was a huge momentum swing for us, and probably broke their back a little bit too.”
What also broke the Saxons back was McNary’s swarming man-to-man defense that forced South Salem to attempt most of their shots from the perimeter.
“We knew coming in that they had a lot of playmakers, so we were really focused on containing the ball. We knew they were going to go on runs, and we knew they were going to hit some big shots, we just needed to keep them to a minimum.” Long said.
The 42 points that the Saxons scored was their lowest point total in MVC play and their second lowest offensive output of the season.
“We knew their personnel and we knew how they liked to play. When they are frustrated they like going one-on-one. They have some kids that can score, but we tell our guys to make them earn in and make them score over us,” Kirch said. “They made some good baskets, but throughout the course of 32 minutes, if you make someone have to work, they will get tired late, and that is exactly what we saw. It’s rewarding for our guys to see that work pay off on the defensive end.”
After going more than eight minutes without a field goal, South Salem finally broke their drought thanks to a 3-pointer from Eli Gabriel, cutting the McNary lead to eight at 43-35 with less than five minutes left in the contest.
South Salem got the lead down to as little as four with 3:30 left, but the Saxons got too aggressive on the other end, leading to an easy layup from Smedema after Copeland broke the double-team.
To make matters worse for South Salem, after barking at officials for most of the game, Brown got a technical foul with two minutes left on the clock, sealing the Saxons fate.
After going just 2-of-6 from the foul line in the first three quarters, the Celtics sank 10 free throws in the final quarter to earn the double-digit win.
“Once we got that lead, we just continued to defend and we were finally able to make some free throws down the stretch,” Kirch said.
Matt Rawlings: [email protected]